Self defense for the introverted

Tai Chi, like any other group activity, suffers from a certain attrition. People come to class, try it out for a bit, and then leave. Other students immediately “get it” and stay for years. There is no clear rhyme or reason to this. Some get it , and some don’t. Such is life.

But a conversation with a student brought this fact into sharper focus. The real distinction is between people who are committed and enjoy introspection, and those who don’t. Tai Chi requires the student to spend long periods of silent self-analysis, with low stimulus and a slow rhythm. In short, paradise for the introverts.

Extroverts, not so much.

We could stop the discussion right here; Tai Chi and most Chinese internal martial arts are for introverts. The rest is for the extroverts. Since the health benefits of Tai Chi are recognized by the Western doctors, a few elderly extroverts are usually sprinkled among the quiet crowds of introverted Tai Chi players.  But there is something else.

Tai Chi becomes a practice of self-defense for introverts. Not just in the physical sense, but in a broader full-life approach. By this I mean that in the relentlessly extroverted modern life we are pushed into, Tai Chi teaches us life skills to deal with the life-draining frantic energies that surrounds us.

The core idea in Tai Chi is that we have a center, or more precisely an axis, which remains still and stable no matter what life throws at us. The meditative aspects of doing the form train the mind to remain still as the body moves through space. When we progress to Push Hands, the training becomes more intense. We now have to remain still and calm as we are physically moved by someone else. Finally on a spiritual level we discover an eternal and productive Stillness, the Tao, to which we can remain connected at all times.

Tai Chi becomes both a safe haven and a training ground for the introverted among us, and the extroverts who might need a little mental space from time to time.

• Tai Chi in History, Part Two

The Cultural Revolution created a massive break in Chinese culture. From then on there was a Before and After when talking about Chinese culture. The last 50 years have been an attempt to rediscover traditional Chinese culture.

Thankfully China has been a literate culture for longer than any other society on Earth. There are plenty of texts dating to the period before the Revolution. The knowledge has been recovered for the most part, but at a cost. The texts and the information has been seen through a modern lens, with a distance created by the Revolution.

In some ways this was inevitable. The living practitioners of the ancient arts (both in medicine and in the martial arts) were mostly dead or in exile. The people reading the ancient texts had only a stunted access to the knowledge.

On top of that, there was also a strong bias within the Chinese establishment towards a western, modern, view of traditional medicine. So traditional techniques like acupuncture were brought into the Chinese hospitals, and taught as a science. The mystical aspects inherent in viewing the body as an energetic field, connected to the Cosmos, were dropped.

Jerry Alan Johnson, in his extensive compendium entitled Chinese Medical Qigong Therapy (vol. 1-5), makes this point clearly. The shamanistic, mystical roots of Taoist medicine have been stripped and sanitized.

The same thing happened with Tai Chi. The people charged with revitalizing Chinese martial arts were part of the Sport Federation. The goal was to create a body of exercises to present to the Chinese public.

The model in this was the Japanese Judo and Karate, sport versions of the more brutal combat techniques that were used by the Japanese Samurai. Tai Chi became more defined, the techniques more rigid. Competitions were established where contestants were judged on the exactitude of their form.  This despite the fact that Tai Chi is supposed to be an INTERNAL martial art, whose subtle workings are invisible to the outside eye.

To those interested in finding the roots of Tai Chi, the first hurdle is the modern view of it. One must first and foremost understand that what we call Tai Chi has almost nothing to do with what a practitioner in pre-Revolution China  would describe as Tai Chi. Only in a few rare forms are the roots preserved.

Similarly, the fall of the Qing Dynasty brought a different distortion. The ancient roots were romanticized in order to prop up an idealized version of Chinese culture.  During the Boxer Rebellion, Chinese martial artists went forth against European fire power fully expecting that their Iron Shirt Qigong would stop bullets, or that the spirits of ancients warriors would rise up from the dead and join in the fight.

What is not in dispute is that Tai Chi was considered a very powerful martial art, tested in the ring and in the street. Yang Luchan taught his Tai Chi to the Imperial Guards, not a group easy to fool on matters of martial prowess. Similarly, Tai Chi is still the go-to practice for health and Qi development. It’s health benefits have been demonstrated scientifically.

What remains today is a mix of old and new, of watered down and simplified, a neutered martial art that still echoes with the power that made it famous 200 years ago. The seeds are still there, ready to blossom if we bring enough attention to it.

• Tai Chi in History

There are many stories on the origins of Tai Chi, most of which try to link the modern forms to some ancient source. But there are a few, more recent, events that are perhaps more relevant.

All modern Tai Chi has been impacted by two major events: The fall of the Qing Dynasty and the Communist Revolution.

By the time Yang Luchan had developed his style of Tai Chi in the 1840s and 50s, the Qing dynasty was already on the way out. The First Opium War of 1839 was a major defeat of the Chinese Navy by the British. The foreign colonial powers had proven that the old Dynasty, and the old Chinese way, were powerless in the face of modern Western technology.

Throughout China, resentment against the Western powers and the religion they were importing, Christianity, was growing. Secret societies dedicated to preserving the old ways developed. Groups like the Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists paved the way to the Boxer Rebellion of June 1900. These societies mixed prayers, martial arts, and training in an effort to preserve traditional Chinese values.

Yang Luchan died 30 years before the Boxer Rebellion, but there is no doubt that he had first hand experience of the troubles rocking China at the turn of the century. In the employ of the ethnically Manchu Qing Dynasty, he surely felt the disquiet of the mostly Han population, and the dismay they must have felt at the sight of a rotting empire crumbling before Western invaders.

Yang Style Tai Chi grew within a cauldron of conflicting trends. The need for revitalizing Chinese society was become evident to everyone. In 1861 the government launched the Self-Strengthening Movement, an official policy of national industrialization. In the private sphere, the Chinese adopted the Western ideals of physical health (echoed in the secret societies and the Boxers).

Similarly, Chinese intellectuals delved back into the ancient roots of Chinese culture as a bulwark against the rising pressure of Christianity. Taoism made a come-back. It is easy to see how upper class Manchu would turn to a physical practice with claims to an ancestral Chinese pedigree. Like Tai Chi.

And in turn Tai Chi gained the input of learned Taoist philosophers, who were able to infuse the martial art with a solid Taoist foundation.  Because up until then, most martial arts were developed in rural villages as a means of defending themselves from roaming brigands.  Like Chen style Tai Chi.

What separates Chen style and Yang style Tai Chi is the input of an educated, urban,  Taoist elite.

The Qing Dynasty fell in 1911, leading to a new Republic which promptly fell apart. The chaos of the following years, including civil wars, popular uprisings, the Japanese invasion and World War II, shattered the traditional relationships between master and students. All the social norms which had shaped traditional Chinese martial arts training were gone.

It was small wonder that the Communist Revolution ushered in the Cultural Revolution. The Great Leap Forward was supposed to be a break from a culture that had seemed incapable of standing up to the Western powers.  When pushed, the Empire crumbled. Mao Zedong tried, with disastrous results, to change that.

The Cultural Revolution was a body blow to the traditional Chinese martial arts. It is hard to over-emphasize the damage done to ancient, traditional knowledge. Master Wang Yannian decided to pass on his knowledge of the Yangjia Michuan Style when he saw how few students were left. The knowledge was on the verge of disappearing for good.

In the 60s and 70s the Chinese government tried to repair some of the damage done and created sport academies to teach some of these traditional martial arts. But many of the more esoteric, Taoist aspects were stripped. The health and sport aspect were emphasized. In the case of Tai Chi, it essentially ceased to be a martial art.

Unless the more traditional, pre-Cultural Revolution forms are found and preserved.

The Three Bodies

A core idea of Taoism is the concept of Sancai, or the trinity of the universe. The number three reflects the generating power, the imbalance of forces needed to move forward.

In the Tao Te Ching we see:


The Tao gives birth to One.
One gives birth to Two.
Two gives birth to Three.
Three gives birth to all things.

Chp. 42


So from the Tao (the underlying All) comes the Wuji (Oneness) from which comes the Taiji (the balance of Yin and Yang) which produces the Three, which becomes the Ten Thousand Things (the entire Universe in all its multiplicity)

We see this trinity in daily life, in the way we separate upper, middle and lower, or the past, present and future. In Qigong techniques, you find Posture, Breath and Visualization as the three main tools of Qi development.

Within the body we find the Lower, Middle and Upper Dantian, with the Upper and Lower Dantian (in the head and belly) issuing energies which are transformed within the third Dantian (near the Heart).

The body itself can be seen as a unified trinity, that of the Jing Body, the Qi Body, and the Shen Body. Some traditions define upwards of nine types of bodies, ending with the greatest and more diffuse of our bodies being the Universe itself. But these bodies are not accessible to most people. They require skills that only very experienced meditators have in order to simply be aware of them, let alone have any influence over them.

So the Three Bodies remain the main way to describe ourselves.

The Jing Body is often described as the essence of the body. I find that less than helpful, since the next questions is then: what do you mean by essence? A more useful description would be the Chemical Body, or even the Wet Body. The Jing Body is the sum of the various gooey things within that transmit chemical energy (blood, bile, hormones, …) and kinetic energy (muscles, tendons).

The Qi Body is what it sounds like: the network of Qi channels and meridians that feed the body. Qi is not accepted within Western medical science, but it can be thought of as the sum of the electric impulses that course through our nervous system. It has sometimes being called the Electric Body. I find that definition rather narrow since Qi is more closely related to our vital energy than just nerve impulses, but even if you do not believe or understand the nature of Qi, the idea of the Electrical Body can be useful.

The third body, or Shen Body, is the most diffuse. It is our spirit body, the aspect of ourselves which may survive death (if we have nourished it enough through meditation). There resides our emotions, our “soul”. These are hard concepts to define since every culture has a different definition of what a soul is.

As you can see there is a progression, from the material to the immaterial, from the solid to the ethereal.  In Taoism, the Qi Body is the bridge between the Shen Body and the Jing Body, the connector between the physical body and the spirit body. There is no disconnect between body and spirit in Eastern philosophy. In the West, the body has often been described as a cage for the soul, something vile, negative, which is dragging down the soul. Within Taoism, the spirit needs the body. It would not exist without it.  One is not superior to the other, they are complimentary.

The very history of Eastern martial arts illustrates this. The internal martial arts (which include Taijiquan and Shaolin Gungfu) were developed from exercises used by meditating monks who found their bodies to be wasting away from too much inactivity. The monks needed their bodies in order to continue their spiritual practice.

In Taoism, the Qi is transformed into Shen within the body. With no body, the Shen is ethereal, fragile, and disperses at the moment of death. So the Three Bodies are interrelated, interdependent of each other. Imbalance in one affects the others. The goal is integration and balance of all three.

As we do the Form or the Basic Exercises, we can bring our focus to these different bodies. I find it helpful to ask myself what body is being worked on most by each exercise. Many Basic exercises work on both the Jing and Qi bodies at once. But it is possible to emphasize one or the other body by making minute changes in the exercises.

I find that the Jing Body needs to be worked on first in order to access the Qi Body effectively. So the warm ups have a natural progression, from Jing to Qi. Similarly, the Forms (13 Postures, etc..) can be done with a focus on the Jing (applications, foot position, etc..) or the Qi (breath, Qi flow). Yes, in the best of al possible world all would be integrated, but we are only human, and many details are missed if you try to do too many things at once.

Develop the Jing Body, work on the Qi Body, then integrate.  Then you will be ready to join the Jing, Qi and Shen.



• Circles and Squares

Another core idea is that one uses:

Circles to Deflect, Squares to Attack

This means that moves that are considered offensive will follow straight lines. Moves that are defensive will be circular.

Defensive Moves are Ward Off and Roll Back. These two moves are actually mirror images of each other. They both draw a line around the body as the arm sweeps through space, with the hips the center point. It’s as if one is wearing a barrel which spins around, deflecting attacks.

Ward Off is considered Yang, powerful, and is used to push an attack away.

Roll Back is considered Yin, soft, and is used to deflect and redirect an attack.

Offensive Moves are Push and Press. The other Moves are also offensive, but are considered secondary. They will be covered later.

Push covers all and any projection of energy in a straight line away from the body. A punch is a Push. A two-handed shove is a Push. A Push is like shooting an arrow.

Press is a compression strike, sending a short shockwave through an opponent. The energy is not sent through the opponent, but into his or her center. A Press is like slamming a hammer down.

Pluck, Twist the Joint, Elbow Strike and Shoulder Strike are offensive moves which are less general than Push or Press. They have their own bio-mechanics and can only be used in specific ways. Push and Press, on the other hand, describe types of energy.

• The Multiple Dimensions of Tai Chi Practice

One of the more fascinating aspects of Tai Chi is its multi-dimensionality. I often view it as a giant three-dimensional puzzle, with rotating parts composed of physical moves, energy centers, emotional states and spiritual components.

There are two core ideas that need to be kept in mind at all times in order to grasp this strange puzzle.

The first is that “As Above, So Below”. The work on the body is a mirror to the work on the spirit, and working on the spirit affects the body. For Taoists, the Chi, or life-energy (or simply the breath) is the connective tissue between the physical body and the spiritual body. The whole forms a system that is integrated, and talks to itself. There is no body without spirit, and no spirit without body ( more on that later).

Secondly, fighting is the metaphor for the interaction of our ego with the world around us. A fist flying towards our face traces the same pattern within us as an insult hurtled towards our self-esteem.  Similarly, there is no distinction between an object falling and a fist thrown, both are kinetic events, both require a reaction, but the quality of the reaction is shaded by our ego’s perception of the event. One is a surprise, the other feels like a threat, but both are physically similar. So the martial art aspect of Tai Chi is our training ground, the place we come to in order to learn how to face our daily life with calm and serenity.

The Tai Chi form becomes a place of enquiry. Each move expresses a specific response to a physical act. Some kinetic event has occurred and the body must move. As I step, questions arise; where is my center, what is the quality of the movement (soft? Forceful?), how is the energy directed towards me handled?

These same questions are mirrored on an emotional level. This kinetic event can be an emotional one, an insult. How is it handled? Where is my emotional center? Do I fight back or side-step the insult or the argument? Where is my response coming from?

The beauty of Tai Chi is that it gives us a unified set of answers. How do I react to a physical event? How do I react to an emotional event?

Find your core, nurture it, strengthen it, move from it.

And that’s why Tai Chi is also a moving meditation. The meditation allows the Tai Chi “player”, or practitioner, to find that core, and nurture it.



• What is Tai Chi?

Tai Chi, in the West, is often thought of as a series of slow gentle movements that old Chinese people do in the park. It is often recommended for people who need some sort of stress relief, low impact exercise or who have trouble with balance.

In reality, there is no such thing as “Tai Chi”. What falls under the umbrella of Tai Chi is a wide range of exercises and techniques, based more or less on a Chinese martial art. The real name is Tai Chi Chuan, or Taijiquan, depending on which translation one uses.

“Tai Chi”, the term, is often translated to Grand Ultimate, the underlying reality of our physical existence.  “Chuan” roughly means “Fist”. So Tai Chi Chuan means Grand Ultimate Fist, or “Method of punching someone in accordance with the divine laws of the Universe”. Roughly.

The important piece of information here is that Tai Chi Chuan is both a martial art and a method of acting in accordance with the laws of the universe. In Taoist terms, acting in sync with the universe is synonymous with enlightenment, with reaching our full potential and becoming “Truly Human”.

Both aspects need to be developed in order to obtain the full benefits of tai Chi Chuan.

In addition, Tai Chi Chuan is further broken down into “families” or styles. The original styles were developed within families, so the Chen style of Tai Chi Chuan was first created by the Chen family.  As Tai Chi Chuan progressed, the art became more widespread and more of a sport. It lost its connection to families and instead grew within the Chinese sports association.

Today the most common Tai Chi Chuan style is the Yang Style, as well as the more modern versions which are referred to simply by the number of moves in them. Hence now people talk of the 24 Forms, the 48 Forms, etc…

The more traditional Tai Chi Chuan forms are still referred to by the family names. The core ones are the Chen style (the oldest), the Yang style, Sun style, and a few other variations as sons and students branched off and developed their own versions.

On this blog we will mostly talk about the Hidden Tradition of the Yang Family style of Tai Chi Chuan, or the Michuan Style (from the full Chinese name, Yangjia Michuan Taijiquan). This is supposedly the original Yang Family style, which was never taught to the greater public. I found it to be closer to its martial art roots than any other Tai Chi style I have studied. It also correlates very strongly with the writings found in the Tai Chi Classics, the collection of 18th and 19th Century texts on Tai Chi.

But all forms of Tai Chi are based on the same principles. The details vary, but the core teachings remain the same.